Skyhooks

technology

The ingenuity of some people really astounds me. I've been watching "Crafty Tricks of War", a programme on BBC2 in which Dick Strawbridge (irrepressible former Army Colonel, Scrapheap Challenge team leader and luxuriantly moustachioed man1) and his friend Diarmud attempt to recreate some ingenious — and frequently downright whacky — engineering solutions developed during the war2. One of the best ideas featured this week was the Skyhook.

The problem the Skyhook was designed to solve was this: it's relatively easy to drop military personnel behind enemy lines by parachute from a plane, but how do you get them back out again without being shot down or detected? Large aircraft would be unable to land in most areas, but a landing by any size of aircraft would attract unwelcome attention. In the 1950s, American inventor Robert Edison Fulton Jr. developed and perfected a system originally used to pick up mail bags in the 1920s, and piloted in the Korean War to extract CIA agents from behind enemy lines.

The system–like many of the best ideas–is rather elegantly simple. The personnel parachute from the aircraft into the drop zone in the normal way. Then, when they are ready to be picked up, the pilot drops (also by parachute) a package of harnesses, ropes and a big helium balloon. The paras get into the harnesses, and release the balloon on the end of a long rope. The skyhook aircraft has a V-shaped metal structure mounted on the nose, and manoeuvres so as to ‘catch' the rope hanging below the balloon. What happens next is that the paras hurtle sky-wards in a particularly violent-looking manner. If I had to choose one word to describe this moment, it would be yoink. Once they are off the ground, flapping around behind the aircraft like pants on a snapped washing line in a gale, they get slowly winched into the fuselage.

Apparently, the paras who got ‘hooked' thought it was quite gentle, but this is obviously some meaning of the word gentle of which I wasn't previously aware. It did look like fun, though, and was even funnier when Dick and Diarmud recreated it with a petrol-driven scale model of a B-17 picking up Action Man from the tarmac. They didn't bother with the winch, so Action Man had a somewhat bumpy landing under the wheels of the B-17.

1 Catchphrase: "Just buzz it off with the sozzle!". No, I don't know what it means, either.

2 Much of the most interesting TV in recent weeks has involved warfare in some way. I hope that this is a coincidence.